Making the pain killing drug morphine by feeding a special yeast sugar is close to reality.
Scientists have engineered yeast which can complete the early steps of synthesising opioids, the class of compounds including heroin and morphine.
Previous studies have shown that engineered yeasts can complete the final steps of opioid synthesis. Future research may allow for large-scale, low cost production of hard drugs.
All that would be needed is simple glucose and the right yeast batch.
Bioengineer John Dueber of the University of California and microbiologist Vincent Martin at Concordia University in Québec genetically engineered a yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, allowing the first demonstration of the conversion of glucose to dopamine by yeast.
According to research in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, the researchers then modified the yeast further, adding DNA from other species. One more step is now required to get drug production.
“What you really want to do from a fermentation perspective is to be able to feed the yeast glucose, which is a cheap sugar source, and have the yeast do all the chemical steps required downstream to make your target therapeutic drug,” said Dueber.
“With our study, all the steps have been described, and it’s now a matter of linking them together and scaling up the process. It’s not a trivial challenge, but it’s doable.”
In principle, anyone would then be able to grow the yeast using a home-brew kit for beer-making.
A comment article in the journal Nature urges the synthetic biology community to act fast to regulate this type of drug making.
“We’re likely looking at a timeline of a couple of years, not a decade or more, when sugar-fed yeast could reliably produce a controlled substance,” said Dueber.
“The time is now to think about policies to address this area of research. The field is moving surprisingly fast, and we need to be out in front so that we can mitigate the potential for abuse.”
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